Empress Nur Jahan and Queen Elizabeth I: Female Icons Ahead of Their Time
Our world has numerous examples of kings who have left a significant impact upon the lives of their people. As the saying goes, “behind every powerful man is an extraordinary woman.” Queen Elizabeth I, however, is an exception. Having ruled by herself, she was famously known as the “Virgin Queen”. Unlike some women, who had to adopt a masculine persona in order to rule, Elizabeth did nothing of the sort. She was proud to be a woman and kept power in her hands throughout her reign. On the other side of the world, a few years after the death of Elizabeth I, Nur Jahan became the twentieth wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, and though she lived in a society where a woman was meant to remain hidden behind a curtain, she came to wield immense power.
In the face of all the odds, the lives of Empress Nur Jahan and Queen Elizabeth I continue to inspire generations of women, even though they came from very different worlds. Elizabeth brought about the Golden Age of England, while Nur Jahan ruled in her husband’s name, bringing about social and political changes. Each woman faced countless challenges to their rule, and yet they overcame adversity through their intelligence and dexterity.
Queen Elizabeth I preceded by the Knights of the Garter. (Public domain)
Elizabeth I: Surviving 16 th Century England
Elizabeth was born to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in September 1533. The first three years of her life were bliss. She was the heir to the throne and the light of her parent’s world. Unfortunately, this came to an end when Henry’s love for Anne turned to hatred, and in 1536 he had his wife executed. Elizabeth’s life changed overnight, when she was declared illegitimate like her half-sister Mary. Her father turned his attention to his new wife and then to his newborn son and heir, Prince Edward. Elizabeth learned early on that in order to survive the turbulent landscape of 16 th century England, she had to adapt to every situation. She matured very quickly and was a remarkable student; intelligent and quick-witted.
Elizabeth lived aside from the court until Henry VIII married Katherine Parr, his sixth and final wife. She healed the bond between father and daughter, welcoming Elizabeth back to the fold. Elizabeth was restored as heir, becoming third in the line of succession after her brother Edward VI and half-sister, Lady Mary. She was raised a Protestant, in her mother’s faith. In 1547, Henry VIII died, and Elizabeth was offered a place to stay with Katherine. The good days couldn’t last, and soon she caught the unwanted eye of Thomas Seymour, Katherine’s new husband. It is said that Thomas made several advances on the young princess. For years Elizabeth suffered under his roof, until Katherine discovered the situation and sent Elizabeth away for her own safety.
Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, by George Gower. (Public domain)
Learning the Art of Survival: The Perils of Being Protestant in a Catholic World
The years that followed were filled with many challenges that taught her how to maneuver through turbulent situations. Thomas Seymour’s attempt to make Elizabeth his bride brought her to the attention of nobles that served Edward VI. While Thomas was executed, Elizabeth survived and going forward she became more cautious, especially during the reign of her half-sister, Mary Tudor. Being a Protestant in a Catholic realm was very dangerous. Elizabeth learned to hide her views in order to survive in this unpredictable world where fortunes could rise and fall in an instant. She had seen what had become of her cousin Jane Grey, who had been queen for just nine days.
During Mary’s reign, Elizabeth was even imprisoned in the Tower of London, coming very close to losing her life. Her resilient spirit during this time was commendable. She never gave up and emerged a stronger and wiser woman. Luckily her situation changed when Mary died in 1558, and Elizabeth was declared queen. However, she now faced a completely different type of threat, as many European countries did not recognize her as sovereign because of her Protestant faith.
Elizabeth had to face numerous assassinations attempts on her life, as some wanted to take her throne and put Mary Stuart, the Catholic Scottish queen, on the throne. Over the years, Elizabeth and Mary Stuart had been in contact with one another. Even though the two queens never met, they were poles apart. When Mary spoiled her fortunes and fled to England seeking protection from her cousin, Elizabeth’s courtiers became worried at the idea of the Scottish queen being so close and bringing with her the Catholic threat. In 1586, Mary became involved in the Babington plot. Problems with Spain and internal problems led to Elizabeth’s courtiers drawing up Mary’s execution warrant. Elizabeth finally gave in and signed it.
In 1585, Elizabeth took the Netherlands under her protection which led to the beginning of the war of Spain. She did not back down, prepared for war, and went on to win two victories against the Spanish Armada in 1588 and 1597. During the Spanish attack, Elizabeth is said to have declared: “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Despite the pleas of her nobles and courtiers, Elizabeth never married during her 44-year reign. Instead she led her people into a golden age. In 1603, this larger than life queen passed away, and her throne was ascended by James, son of Mary Stuart.
Nur Jahan’s life took an unexpected turn when she caught the eye of Emperor Jahangir in 1611, who made her his twentieth and final wife. (Public domain)
Nur Jahan: Ruling From Behind a Curtain
Nur Jahan was born into a world where many important women had lived and inspired others around them. However, Nur Jahan lived in a society where a woman could not rule in the bright glare of the public, so she ruled from behind a curtain. Many people around her became intimidated by her power and influence with the Mughal Emperor, which led to regrettable rumors trying to depict her as the villain. From the start, she had it rough. But no matter what happened, she was able to rise to the occasion.
She was born Mehr-un-Nisa in the year 1577. Her father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg, had belonged to a prestigious family in Persia, until they had fallen from favor. Thus, to escape Persia they migrated to India, to the court of Emperor Akbar. On the way, their caravan was attacked and looted, leaving Ghiyas Beg without any money. It was in these circumstances that Mehr-un-Nisa arrived into the world. Her father felt he could not support another child and made the difficult decision to abandon her.
There are two stories that pop up at this time. The first story claims that the caravan leader found the little baby and brought her back to her parents, striking up a friendship and promising to introduce them to the Emperor. The second one is that Mehr-un-Nisa’s mother began crying for her baby and so Ghiyas Beg turned back to fetch her. Upon locating the baby, he saw that a snake was circling the child, as if protecting her. Her father then knew that his daughter was destined for great things.
Mirza Ghiyas Beg’s fortunes took a turn for the better when they arrived in India. He quickly rose among the ranks, becoming the grand vizier in Akbar’s court. Mehr-un-Nisa bloomed into a beautiful woman. However, it is not certain whether she caught the eye of the young prince Salim, the future Emperor Jahangir. What we do know for certain is that, in 1594, Mehr-un-Nisa was married to Sher Afghan (Ali Quli) at seventeen. It was said to be a happy marriage, which produced a daughter, Ladli Begum.
Nur Jahan entertaining Jjahangir and Prince Khurram. Over time, the king increasingly began to rely on her and she would often sit behind the Emperor during court. (Public domain)
Becoming the Twentieth Wife of the Mughal Emperor
Unfortunately, like all good things, it had to come to an end. When Emperor Jahangir came to the throne, he wanted to exact revenge from all the men who had sided with his father during his rebellion. Sher Afghan, being one of those men, lost his life. In 1607 Mehr-un-Nisa found herself a widow, with a young daughter to support. She was moved to the court in order to become lady-in-waiting to Empress Ruqaiya. Her life took another unexpected turn when in 1611, during the Nauroz (New Year) festival, she caught the eye of Emperor Jahangir, who made her his twentieth and final wife. As time went on Jahangir granted Mehr-un-Nisa the title of Nur Mahal (Light of the Palace) and then Nur Jahan (Light of the World).
Jahangir was often in an intoxicated state due to his love for wine and opium. Nur Jahan would take care of her husband and often assist him in matters of state when he was drunk. Slowly, the king increasingly began to rely on her and she would often sit behind the Emperor during court. Hidden behind a curtain, if she did not agree with something, she would place her hand on his back, out of sight.
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Nur Jahan could not move around as freely as her counterpart, Elizabeth. Therefore, it was important to surround herself with men who she could trust and who would relay her orders. Many of her family members rose through the ranks when she was empress. At the time, nobles began speculating that Nur Jahan used to keep the king intoxicated so that he would become more and more reliant upon her to run the affairs of state. There were several reported incidents when the queen would sit at the Jharoka, although her husband was absent.
A strong-willed female was seen a threat by many. After all, years earlier, Razia Sultana had been the first woman to assume control without the aid of a king. Now Nur Jahan, an intelligent and brave woman, had assumed the role of co-ruler, with her name printed on the coins of the time. She was also an expert huntress, who shot down four tigers with six bullets. She would be seated on an elephant during the hunting expeditions, often wearing men’s clothes.
She was also known for her charity. There is a famous story that as queen, Nur Jahan commissioned the construction of a long golden chain that was hung outside the palace and connected to Jahangir’s room. Created for the people, if they pulled it Jahangir would be aware that his subjects wanted to meet with their king. The Empress Nur Jahan was also a military leader and Jahangir records her expeditions to quell the rebellions taking place in the empire. She is even famous for rescuing her husband when he had been kidnapped. However, Nur Jahan’s influence came to an end when Jahangir passed away in 1627.
Feminist Icons Before Their Time
Both women faced great odds to pave their path to success. Elizabeth I and Nur Jahan were women who shone through the darkness of their age to become feminist beacons well ahead their time. Even though Empress Nur Jahan had gained a negative reputation, one cannot deny that she excelled in many fields. She was a leader, businesswoman and fashion icon. Queen Elizabeth was a brave and intelligent woman, who fared all the trials that she came across. These two have had a lasting impact on their respective countries, inspiring others that came after.
Top image: In the face of all the odds, the lives of Empress Nur Jahan and Queen Elizabeth I continue to inspire generations of women, as their strength turned them into feminist icons ahead of their time. Source: Left - Public domain. Right - Public domain.